68

I work in IT, but have a coworker who wrote a novel in her spare time. It wasn't a NY Times bestseller, but my understanding is it did surprisingly well for an independent author. I finally read it when a coworker told me sternly that I needed to read it.

So it turns out that the villain is definitely based on me. And yes, I am 100% sure it is based on me. Here are a few of the many examples:

  • I have a very distinct name (you've probably never heard it before). The villain in the book has the same name, just with 2 letters transposed.
  • The character has the same hobbies, favorite TV show, city born, car, and even hair style and dress as me.
  • I once had a very embarrassing moment at work when I dropped a birthday cake on the floor. This character is constantly dropping food all over the floor. (It's supposed to be funny, I think).
  • After a frustrating dating experience, I had once shared some very intimate and NSFW details with a few coworkers. Even this made it into the book.

I'm angry and embarrassed. This book is circulating around the office as it grows in popularity. I want to confront my coworker and possibly boss/HR, but I don't really know what to say. What's the best way to approach this situation?

2
  • 2
    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Kilisi
    Oct 28, 2021 at 18:50
  • Do you know why this person targeted you? Do you actually have to work with this person or are they avoidable?
    – BSMP
    Nov 4, 2021 at 5:07

8 Answers 8

117

Offer to autograph the copies of the book as the villain, using her spelling. Tell everyone that you are thrilled to have a character based off of you.

The best thing you can do is to get people laughing with you, and not at you

This will blow over soon enough, and there is nothing you can do that won't make you look like a poor sport with no sense of humor. The cat is already out of the bag and all you can do is embrace it. For added chutzpah, thank the author, and ask to collaborate on their next book.

The key is to not let on that you are embarrassed.

11
  • 49
    Look up the Streisand Effect for what's likely to happen if you actively try to suppress it instead of embracing it.
    – Neil_UK
    Oct 28, 2021 at 7:58
  • 30
    Also, if it is painfully obvious that the OP is the person in this book, that's the author being a bully. If someone did this to one of my colleges, I'd lose a lot of respect for that person. This really doesn't reflect well on the author at all. it's just mean and inappropriate. Embracing it is the best way to take it, and then let the authors actions speak for themselves.
    – stanri
    Oct 28, 2021 at 8:55
  • 14
    +1 OP should also ask if they can appear in the movie adaptation.
    – camden_kid
    Oct 28, 2021 at 9:34
  • 8
    @stanri Also, if the author had malicious intent, it will irk her to no end to see the OP not bothered by it, even more so, if it made the OP happy Oct 28, 2021 at 15:31
  • 5
    “Don't let them see that it hurt you” is the same advice that children are often given when bullied at school. It did not work for me…
    – gidds
    Oct 28, 2021 at 17:36
34

You stated in the comments:

I want to make sure that this doesn't keep growing and that future incidents like this doesn't happen to me or other people because I didn't speak up. I feel that if I do nothing, I am allowing myself to be abused.

You won't be able to stop the books popularity from growing. If anything, calling more attention to the book at the office may make it more popular within the office.

You cannot prevent future incidents (i.e. someone taking elements of someone else or experiences/events of someone else and writing it into a piece of fiction ).

Any similarities between a character in this book and yourself can easily be dismissed as coincidental even if the character in the book is a 100% accurate representation of yourself. Once again, keep in mind that this is a work of fiction, it is not intended to represent anything real.

If you want this to go away, don't make an issue about it. If someone attempts to use this book to harass you in some way, I would politely ask them to stop and if they continue, I would go through the normal channels of reporting workplace abuse.

2
  • 14
    I can't think of any better way to ensure that every single person in the company reads the book than an edict from HR banning, or telling people that they're not allowed to talk about it in the workplace.
    – Gh0stFish
    Oct 28, 2021 at 12:53
  • 4
    On the other hand, thinly veiled fiction can still be libel, legally speaking, if it "fails to sufficiently disguise the individual". Not that it sounds like anything in this book constitutes libel. Oct 29, 2021 at 4:14
32

TLDR: Talk to your manager and HR to get a formal complaint on the record regardless of what they may be able to accomplish for you. Seek legal assistance to attempt to get either remuneration or other recompense.

Trying to keep something like this from growing is the fastest way to grow it. Nothing titillates like the forbidden, and as soon as you take this away because it's a BIG THING will make it an even bigger thing. The best way to make it a non-thing is to treat it like such. The more you fight it, the more it will gain traction. This bell has been rung, and it can't be unrung.

Trying to keep this from happening in the future will require legal action, and that is well beyond the scope of this site.

You are right that if you do nothing you are simply letting yourself to be abused. You have been abused in this fashion. It's happened. Not doing anything may reduce the amount of abuse you're subjected to, and in the end it may open you up to continued and repeated abuse. Since the book is considered a production of "art" it's under some pretty heavy protections generally, and the fact that it was produced outside of the office limits what your company's HR can do. However, it is something that is circulating throughout the office so they do have some recourse.

What you're describing is effectively workplace bullying, and it should never be tolerated. I would recommend discussing it with your manager AND with your HR department to submit an official complaint of workplace harassment. There's nothing wrong with getting it on the record. Be ready for them to tell you there's nothing they can do about it. They truly mean there's nothing they will do about it, but they're there to protect the company not you.

Finally, I would recommend seeking legal representation. While you can't eliminate the abuse that's been generated as a result of this, you may be able to achieve some form of legal relief in the form of royalty payment or even potentially ownership rights. Only a lawyer can help you there.

4
  • 3
    The last point is essentially a mis-use of Name-Image-Likeness?
    – JonTheMon
    Oct 27, 2021 at 20:10
  • @JonTheMon: I couldn't say honestly, and that's how I perceive it. It's certainly something I would bring up with a legal advisor. Oct 27, 2021 at 20:20
  • The first thing that came to mind was that your coworker infringed of OP's right of publicity which is essentially what @JonTheMon mentioned. Seeking legal assistance to attempt to get either remuneration or other recompense would be my first course of action. This is because it is a more permanent solution. If you go to the company's HR/management, then the resolution would be limited in scope; the coworker would still be benefiting from the sales of the book long after he leaves the company.
    – zmike
    Oct 27, 2021 at 21:34
  • 4
    @zmike: Nothing is stopping from OP from doing both things. It is not an "either/or" situation. Oct 27, 2021 at 22:11
18

Since your coworkers already have access to the book, I doubt there is anything you can make the author do to reduce your embarrassment and upset. I recommend you take the position that the character in the book is "What if Elisease but times 1000 and with added weird and evil?" You can say out loud that you wish the way-more-evil, way-more-clumsy, way-more-cringe than you character was not so obviously based on you. You can make jokes about what Fictional Name would do in a particular situation. You can even make a little fun of the author for having so little imagination as to base the name and half of the villain's personality on you.

That's the public face. Not quite laughing it off, but laughing when it's brought up and pointing out the book is fiction. Use the cake incident as an example of the x1000: you dropped one food item; Fictional Character drops many food items. That sort of thing. If there's anything Fictional Character did that you didn't, use that as an example of "added weird and evil." Ideally at least some people will consider any gossip in the book they didn't already know as fiction, too.

In private, I would go once to the author. I would tell them I was embarrassed and upset by the mere existence of this character, and that the author's laziness in using so many of my characteristics had extended that embarrassment to the workplace. I would (probably angrily) tell them there was nothing they could do to make it right, that I was not looking for an apology, and that I didn't want to ever discuss this matter with them again.

Then I would go to my boss and ask for suggestions about dealing with my feelings of embarrassment at having this character modelled on me. I wouldn't actually expect my boss to have anything useful to say, but this would enable me to move on to HR without "bypassing" my boss. It's possible the boss had no idea about the book and you might have to provide the same precis you have provided here (maybe leave out the NSFW incident, you don't want to confirm that part as real.)

After that you can go to HR. They probably won't have anything super useful to offer either, but you document the meeting and the date. Firing people for things done outside of work is rare. However, if you think the author wrote the book and distributed copies at work to harass you, HR may get involved. That won't be their first guess and you may not be able to convince them that this is harassment.

After your work meetings, you pay a local lawyer to write a letter to the publisher asking that the book not be printed any longer at all. They may ignore you, or offer some sort of changes in subsequent printing (the extraordinarily lazy name for example). They may drop the author; ideally you wouldn't care but probably you would be happy if they did.

Finally, if you feel your coworkers cannot settle down or switch to making fun of the author instead of you, you may need to leave the job. Find a new one first, of course: I can't see any court, even small claims, awarding you lost income as a result of the egregious behaviour of your coworker. Unless, as mentioned earlier, you feel this is targeted harassment; that may open some doors to compensation, but of course will not stop gossip and snickering.

2
  • 29
    In comments to co-workers, I'd also make it weird back to the author: "I'm surprised that author had enough imagination to make up some of these situations, but not enough imagination to even come up with a unique name. Author is weirdly fixated on me - I wonder why?" In other words, comments that should make the author embarrassed, instead of you; comments that make your co-workers talk about the author, instead of you. Oct 27, 2021 at 20:44
  • 3
    @thursdaysgeek : this comment is so good, it should be an answer! Especially the methods focusing on "comments that should make the author embarrassed, instead of you"
    – Val
    Oct 28, 2021 at 6:13
10

The best way to approach this depends how far you are willing to go to remedy the situation. @JoeStrazzere says in a comment that "the best approach is to keep it to yourself." That is definitely an option and will minimize the Streisand effect (see @Theodore's answer). I have a different opinion.

The first thing that came to mind was that your coworker infringed of your right of publicity which is essentially what a few people have alluded to but have not said outright. Talk to a lawyer. Therefore this is not so much a workplace issue as it is a legal issue, so the Legal Stack Exchange would be more appropriate.

Talking to the company's HR or management will be limited in scope. Whatever action they take, your coworker's book will still be out there earning revenue for the coworker.

4
  • 4
    I'd also consider a defamation lawsuit, considering that this character is depicted as a villain.
    – nick012000
    Oct 28, 2021 at 8:07
  • 1
    @nick012000 : that's not what defamation is about. Defamation is if I make a statement of fact which is untrue and known to me to be untrue. If I wrote an article stating that you robbed a bank, and you never robbed a bank, that's defamation. Basing a fictional villain about you is something else. Is it not only clear that the fictional villain is representing you, but is it also implied that the real-life you committed the evil deeds the fictional villain committed? Then you might have a slim chance, but even then it's not guaranteed.
    – Val
    Oct 28, 2021 at 12:31
  • 1
    @Val: "Defamation is if I make a statement of fact which is untrue and known to me to be untrue" — not quite; that's just lying. Defamation is making an untrue statement that would harm a person's reputation — except in some countries, where even true statements can be defamation. Here's some examples from America of libel-via-fiction cases: dmlp.org/blog/2010/… Oct 28, 2021 at 15:12
  • 1
    @PaulD.Waite : I agree, I only kept my description short because my point was not on the part about harming the reputation (that was already implied both in the question and the answer) but about it being a statement of fact or not.
    – Val
    Oct 28, 2021 at 16:22
3

The book itself sounds to me like it could be considered satire. In some countries anyway, some forms of satire are protected speech. IANALATINLSEC* so I can't say whether it meets the legal definition of satire.

I will suggest that if some of its audience finds it funny, they may be more likely to defend the work and the author's right to free speech than they are to defend the apparent object of the ridicule. (Remember: they may simply be unaware or mistaken about the limits of protection, so don't assume bad faith.)

Attempts to suppress the continued publication of the book or to force a revision to it may just end up bringing the book to the attention of a wider audience than it would have had otherwise. (This has been called the "Streisand Effect" after Barbara Streisand's unsuccessful attempt to suppress aerial photos of her taken by a nonprofit working to document coastal erosion.) How would you suppress an independent book nowadays anyway? Even if you can legally compel your coworkers to delete all PDF copies of the book from their personal devices, how would you enforce that? Once it's out of their hands, there's no way to rein it in.

The thing you can change is how it's handled in the office. If the author has done anything to promote the book or discuss it during working hours, especially if those discussions mentioned the similarity of this character to you, cultivated gossip relating to you, etc., that's where you should focus your efforts and how you should frame your concerns to your manager or HR so that they can take action to prevent the author from creating an unpleasant work environment.


*IANALATINLSEC: I Am Not A Lawyer And This Is Not Law.StackExchange.Com

5
  • 8
    I'm not aware of any country where it's quite as black-and-white as "satire is protected speech". An individual work of satire can be protected speech, especially when it's obviously exaggerated or when criticising a public figure. But even in the USA, there is plenty of precedent for a successful defamation lawsuit against fiction which closely resembles RL people; see e.g. here for several cases which seem rather less blatant than what OP describes. Oct 28, 2021 at 0:10
  • 4
    I'm not sure that mocking a co-worker comes under the definition of satire in the way that mocking a public figure does. There are variations internationally but many countries including the US have different rules/laws around public and private figures. Also, satire allows you to say something that is clearly satirical (e.g. if you portrayed Trump eating immigrant babies) but doesn't let you lie indiscriminately and there are many cases of satirical publications being sued for libel/defamation/etc.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 28, 2021 at 9:30
  • 1
    @GeoffreyBrent I have edited to try to reframe my opening.
    – Theodore
    Oct 28, 2021 at 13:59
  • @StuartF I edited to clarify my mention of protected speech.
    – Theodore
    Oct 28, 2021 at 14:01
  • @StuartF : the fun thing with your example is that "Trump eating immigrant babies" can be both anti-Trump and pro-Trump satire, depending on the presentation and context (the former criticizing his policies, the latter criticizing how one-sidedly his opponents try to portray him, "this is what they think, LOL"). The point is, that no one of sane mind will think, after seeing that drawing, that Trump really did that. However, if a satire can likely cause a reasonable person to believe it as a statement of fact, then it can pave the way for a successful lawsuit.
    – Val
    Oct 29, 2021 at 4:50
-3

You need to think about the effect on your employer both of the publication of this book and of you taking legal action against a co-worker.

If the company is potentially recognisable in the book, then I would expect the company to take action against the co-worker, possibly including terminating their employment. However, it's possible that the author has abstracted you and put you in a totally different situation, in which case the company may feel the company's reputation is not affected by the publication of the book.

If you take legal action against the author, or otherwise try to shut down publication, then it is likely to attract press interest against your company. This kind of sensationalist public spat will not make you look good to your employers.

Therefore it is vital that you follow company procedures. Go to HR or management, as this is something that affects the company and if you don't say anything that could be considered a breach of your duty to protect the company's reputation. But if they want to keep it quiet and let it blow over, then you need to comply.

You may feel that making a complaint will damage your reputation as being a fun person who can take a joke, but if this book is being passed around the office, it's bound to come to the attention of senior management sooner or later.

If management doesn't do anything, then you're out of luck. But maybe it's not a good place to work if bullying is rife and they don't care about their staff.

I'm assuming you want to remain popular and to have a continuing career at your current company; if not then definitely get lawyered up, shut the book down, and look for a new job.

-4

Take it as a compliment. It means you're an interesting enough person and made enough of an impression on someone that parts of you were incorporated into a fictional character.

I wrote a book, I found that modified situations from my real life and people and personalities were by necessity part of the character and event portrayals. I also found that most people I had met through my life were just wraiths, only a few were interesting enough to be useful.

Some of my acquaintances recognised bit of themselves and their stories in the book, but took it in good spirit because it's just fiction.

4
  • 9
    I'm not sure one should take as a compliment what is nothing short of harrassment. Oct 28, 2021 at 9:38
  • 2
    When we find out Kilisi is Elisease's coworker!
    – psaxton
    Oct 28, 2021 at 18:04
  • @psaxton All writers base their characters on real people at some level I would think.
    – Kilisi
    Oct 28, 2021 at 18:41
  • @psaxton Definitely sounds par for the course where Kilisi works. Oct 30, 2021 at 9:51

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .